In our column Poetry Rx, readers write in with a specific emotion, and our resident poets—Sarah Kay, Kaveh Akbar, and Claire Schwartz—take turns prescribing the perfect poems to match. This week, Kaveh Akbar is on the line.
I have finally settled with the great love of my life. I have been with him through joys and losses, both in my life and his, and we have reached the place where our paths merge and become one. We have a home together. We have made promises to each other—long-term promises that I would never have thought possible to fulfill. I feel full, overflowing, for possibly the first time in my life. Is there a poem for this feeling, like the road ahead is paved in gold? Like a large piece of the puzzle of my life has finally clicked into place?
Love Is Wonderful
Congratulations to you on your glorious fullness, the impossible luck that has found you. I just got married last weekend and can very much relate to the feeling of “a large piece of the puzzle” finally clicking into place. It’s a load-bearing gratitude in my life, as it sounds to be in yours.
For you, I offer “Errata” by Kevin Young, a poem I’ve been reading and rereading since my wedding. It begins,
Baby, give me justone more hissWe must lake it fastmoreverI want to cold youin my harms
In the speaker’s great love fugue, “You make me weak in the knees” becomes “You wake me meek / in the needs.” It’s a deeply clever, desperately hopeful love poem that shows language buckling under the weight of desire.
In A Year with Swollen Appendices, Brian Eno writes, “The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat that releases it. The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.” For Young’s speaker, the gravity of desire is strong enough to pull apart his medium, creating a new constellation of private language native to his specific love. Great affection often produces this: invented vernacular to accommodate unprecedented love. In this way, “Errata” exemplifies Horace’s pronouncement that a great poem should delight as well as instruct. I hope it might do a bit of each for you and your partner.
I was wondering if you could prescribe me the perfect rain poem, if such a thing even exists. But if not that, or perhaps in addition to it (I don’t want to be greedy with the poems here but sometimes people go to the doctor thinking they have one thing when they really have two), a poem that hugs you. Do you know what I mean? Like a poem that feels like a hug when you read it.
Hug Me in the Rain
I don’t know about the perfect rain poem—I think of Robert Graves’s line about the impossibility of a perfect poem: “Once it had been written, the world would end.” But here is a very, very good rain poem by Dorothea Lasky, which was originally published in issue no. 208 of The Paris Review (Spring 2014). As a bonus, its last couplet is about as close as a poem can come to pulling you into a giant bear hug.
by Dorothea Lasky
What is going to happen
Is that it’s going to rain
Rain my love
A poem not about sex
The true kind
You talk of things
To myself and others
You think of things
Her long tanned arms
You will realize you love me
But it will be too late
You will cry out for me
I will be long gone
This is not a wish
But what I knew to be so
This is what I knew to be so
Under the pouring sun
This is what I knew to be so
Under the pouring sea
Where they will find us
You and me
Do you have a poem for that fusion of emotions—rage, guilt, blurry compassion—that you feel after you’ve outgrown someone or something that used to mean a lot to you?
Dear Growing Pains,
I’ve been totally taken by this new poem by Shane McCrae titled, “Lines Composed at 34 North Park Street, on Certain Memories of My White Grandmother Who Loved Me and Hated Black People Like Myself. July 15, 2017.” I think it has everything to do with the feeling you describe. The title cues us into the complex relationship the speaker has with his grandmother, and the complex relationships people like his grandmother have with themselves and their stations. It begins,
America I was I think I was
Seven I think or anyway I prob-
ably was nine I anyway was nine
And riding in the back seat of our tan
Datsun 210 which by the way Amer-
ica I can’t believe Datsun is just
Gone anyway America I was
Riding in the back seat we were we my grand-
mother and I were passing the it must
Have been a mall but I have tried and can’t
Remember any malls in Austin at
The time America but do I really
Remember Austin really I remember
This thing that happened once when I was passing
A mall in Austin so the mall so Austin
The poem’s repetitions declare its obsessions, endlessly reprocessing a dangerous past in order to illuminate the path toward a safer future. The echoes of “America,” “mall,” “Datsun,” and, later, “glass” create an incantatory whirl, an exorcist’s chant. The effect is narcotic, hallucinatory—something is being conjured or cast out.
By the end of the poem, the speaker has identified the true culprit, the one that tries to watch and consume him as it literally consumed his grandmother in her “mobile home filling up with trash.” It is the nation that taught his grandmother to hate, that bred in her that dissonance and ultimately choked her with its “cloud of glass,” all that sparkling trash. The orientation of the speaker to his grandmother is perfectly captured by your phrase, “blurry compassion.” Henry James said that a writer is “one upon whom nothing is lost,” and for McCrae, each detail is a kind of recovery, a way to turn the tables on an idea of America he outgrew long ago.
Kaveh Akbar’s poems have appeared recently in The New Yorker, Poetry, the New York Times, the Nation, and elsewhere. His first book is Calling a Wolf a Wolf. Born in Tehran, Iran, he teaches at Purdue University and in the low-residency M.F.A. programs at Randolph College and Warren Wilson.